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Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

HORIZON CHAPTER 1 is exactly what I thought it would be: ambitious and flawed. There was no way, especially after the Cannes reaction, that I predicted a perfect movie (there really isn’t such a thing or at least very few anyway).

Costner’s first segment of (potentially) four parts in his epic-long tale of the American West is a big ensemble piece. Some audiences will be surprised and disappointed that the star himself doesn’t show up on screen for quite a while. I’ve already seen complaints about that but this isn’t a star vehicle like TOP GUN: MAVERICK. Costner is reaching for something else; he’s after John Ford and HOW THE WEST WAS WON. And his reach exceeds his grasp but the results are nevertheless well-worth watching.

An early raid scene, showing what it might have been like for a Native tribe to destroy an early settlement, is intense and effective. Especially as it goes on, the terror of the experience comes to life on screen. I particularly liked that Costner’s portrayal of the Natives doesn’t feel “evil”. They’re doing what they feel they need to do. When the movie star does show up, he plays through a couple extended dialog scenes that take some getting used to. HORIZON often has a different pace than other films, even different than Costner’s previous directing projects. It really takes its time with the interactions and conversations, something that might drive some modern audiences crazy and I suspect is one reason some keep saying this belongs on TV instead of the big screen. I disagree. He’s painting on a big canvas and it should be presented that way. Through these extended moments between Kevin and Mary or Kevin and one of the villains, I enjoyed his performance even if the scene didn’t quite work. The latter sequence, which leads to the saga’s first gunfight, feels forced and oddly staged. We’re supposed to believe that these two immediately recognize they’re going to the same place and that must mean conflict yet they’re hardly out of town, still within earshot of others. It’s just poor staging that prevents the scene from succeeding.

Other mistakes along the way in Costner’s narrative have the same effect, such as not establishing the man following Mary until the tent scene. A simple shot showing her look back and see a man tracking them would have planted that seed. Instead, his sudden appearance causes confusion when we should be focused on the characters. Another example: a touching scene between Lizzie and two soldiers could have played with more power if it had been set up by a previous scene establishment their importance to her. It’s almost as if the dramatic set ups of several moments hit the cutting room floor or perhaps they were never written. It’s a shame between by the time three hours were up, neither me nor my girlfriend were eager for it to be over. We both wanted to keep watching and the watching experience would have been even stronger with those missing elements. It reminds me of the deleted scenes from DANCES WITH WOLVES, included in an extended cut on one of the DVD editions, which actually enrich the narrative.

There are a couple other mistakes Costner makes and they both relate to how he ends this first chapter. I compared the scope of HORIZON as “THE LORD OF THE RINGS of Westerns”. I stand by that statement after seeing the first installment but even though the RINGS series stretched out over three films, they found a way to satisfy audiences with a semi-conclusion at the end of each film. HORIZON lacks a climax. It’s a surprise when the montage/trailer suddenly concludes chapter 1 (more on that in a bit). Narratively, Costner and team should have found a way to bring one or two of these stories to a head and give us a bang to go out on. Instead, and I get what he’s doing, Chapter 1 is all about setting things up. The trouble with all set up is that we go home just wanting more…. And now, the montage. Having read some reviews prior to the screening, I understand the sequence that concludes HORIZON as a trailer for Chapter 2 which comes out in a couple months. Others fear that it is a summary of events, basically scenes that couldn’t fit into the cut. I have strong doubts that is true. However, it’s poorly handled. Costner should have cut to black after a strong shot, then flashed a “to be continued” title card, and then cut to the this “trailer”. As is, the audience doesn’t know what to do with it, increasing that dissatisfied feeling that lingers as we walk out of the theater.

That being said, I am excited for Chapter Two. I liked most of the performances from Danny Huston to Luke Wilson to all the bit parts featuring many, many familiar faces. The scope and ambition is a wonder to see on the big screen and I can feel the strength of Costner’s story. I just hope that he pulls together the unwieldy narrative with the upcoming installments.

Watched at Orion Cinema in Yakima, WA.